Reviews, profiles and news about art in Chicago

Review: Of Heaven and Earth: 500 Years of Italian Painting from Glasgow Museums/Milwaukee Art Museum

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Carlo Dolci. "Salome with the Head of St. John the Baptist," 1665–1970

Carlo Dolci. “Salome with the Head of St. John the Baptist,” 1665–1970

These forty paintings may not be the best way to exemplify 500 years of Italian painting. They have the stylistic elements but usually not the powerful emotive achievements of that great tradition. There’s only one piece, and a rather decrepit one, done before 1480, so the devotional intensity of the Italian variety of Byzantine icon is hardly evident. Also absent is the bold excitement of the Caravaggisti who are represented here by Antiveduto Gramatica, one of Caravaggio’s teachers who later decided to imitate his famous student. He came up short, just as, in the same gallery, the eighteen-year-old Titian could not yet achieve his later glories. “Christ and the Adulteress” feels like nothing more than a conglomeration of figure and drapery studies. One figure has even been lopped off and reframed over the intervening centuries. Here, it hangs beside the original, and yes, it probably looks better that way. But it’s fascinating to see a powerful mind beginning to assemble the visual elements that Titian will eventually master, just as it’s fascinating to see Carlo Dolci’s life-size depiction of Salome hanging beside an example of his work done fifty years earlier. Dedicated to painting that, in his words, “would inspire the fruits of Christian piety,” Dolci is usually too saccharine for anyone but the faithful. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Treasures of Kenwood House/Milwaukee Art Museum

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Rembrandt van Rijn, “Self Portrait with Two Circles,” c. 1665


The Kenwood House collection was assembled mostly in the four years following 1887 to help the mega-rich Irish beer dynast Edward Guinness eventually qualify as the first Earl of Iveagh. Built strictly by his Bond Street art dealer (whose clientele also included J. Pierpont Morgan and Henry Clay Frick), Guinness’ collection reflects a taste for the small, domestic and sentimental, with an emphasis on depictions of elegant young women, children and hunting dogs. There are many portraits from the eighteenth-century golden age of English portraiture, several of which whose subjects’ faces seem to have been cut and pasted into a serviceably upscale background. At bottom, there are a few painfully mediocre Bouchers and a faux Rubens. Read the rest of this entry »

Eye Exam: Fighting a Fire

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The artist hub in Riverwest, Milwaukee

By Pedro Velez

Immediacy is to art criticism what combustion is to fire, and in the era of the twenty-four-hour online news cycle, a spark of information can trigger a wildfire of overwhelming emotion. This happened to me recently on Tuesday, July 17, when a fire ravaged one of the most important art hubs in the country: the Riverwest building on 631 East Center Street in Milwaukee.

For a decade, Riverwest was a safe haven for the city’s young avant-garde and a meeting place for filmmakers, musicians, poets and bohemians. At the time of the fire, eight artists lived there while another eleven rented studios, including Sara Caron, a former student of mine, who is a talented artist and director of Small Space Gallery. The building was also home to several galleries that had close commercial ties to Chicago. Among them were Club Nutz, CENTER, American Fantasy Classics, Plum House and Nomadic, many of them artist-run. Its most famous habitant was internationally known, The Green Gallery West, which still has a second location on the other side of town, but their storage space is gone and so is much of the work by an all-star roster, including Michelle Grabner, José Lerma, Spencer Sweeney, Santiago Cucullu, Nicholas Frank, Scott Reeder, Tyson Reeder and others. According to John Riepenhoff, artist and co-owner of The Green Gallery, Lerma’s paintings are safe though some of the Reeders have been lost to water damage and smoke. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Accidental Genius/Milwaukee Art Museum

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Sylvia Levine, "Cornish Landscape with Donkeys," 1987. Photo: Larry Sanders


Featured art collector Anthony Petullo began acquiring works at the Milwaukee Art Museum’s annual “Lakefront Festival of Arts,” which includes contemporary arts and crafts. Now, thirty years later, he has divided the pieces among his children and the museum, gifting 300 works with an indicated special focus on outsider and self-taught artists. However, some of the exhibition’s best work comes from the trained artists within his collection.

Petullo seems to have taken some chances with several European as well as American artists who aren’t well known. Beside iconic names like Henry Darger and Minnie Evans hangs work by Sylvia Levine, whose work can be purchased on the internet for under 500 dollars. Levine wasn’t completely self-taught; she took art classes that probably helped her develop the strong quality of her reclining nudes in an early twentieth-century figurative style. David Pearce is also far from famous, though his sparse, lonely village-scapes show that he is adept at presenting a dreamy and beautiful world. His gallery markets him as self-taught, but his own website indicates that he studied at the Epsom, Kent and Chelsea schools of art. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: H.D. Tylle/Grohmann Museum

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German painter H.D. Tylle proclaimed, “I am attempting to reach two levels: people who are involved in art but don’t know about working circumstances, and people working in factories who are normally not involved in art.” Tylle gets commissioned by industrialists, like Eckhart Grohmann, who know something about both, and it’s a tribute to both the artist and his patrons that his work is far greater than the industrial photography or illustration often found in trade magazines. He excels both in small, quick studies done on the factory floor and in heroic-sized visions, completed back at the studio. Remarkably enough, they’re neither heroic nor romantic, like the historic twentieth and nineteenth-century factory paintings in the “Man at Work” collection, on display at the Grohmann Museum. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Emperor’s Private Paradise/Milwaukee Art Museum

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The Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799) was a fanatic patron of the arts who is quite familiar to lovers of Chinese painting. He stamped his big red seal on many of the 10,000 paintings that he collected, not just once, but each time he unrolled them. He is also known to Chicagoans thanks to the 2004 exhibition at the Field Museum, “Splendors of China’s Forbidden City.” Recently, the World Monuments Fund has focused attention on the Juanqinzhai, a two-acre compound of gardens and pavilions in the Forbidden City that the emperor commissioned at the age of sixty to serve as a retreat in his declining years. This year, many of the furnishings from those pavilions are touring the United States.

The imitation rootwood furniture is perhaps the most memorable. Displaying a passion for faux-rusticity, also shared by the contemporary French royal court, these  outrageously convoluted objects miraculously reflect both organic process and elegant human design, as well as the Buddhist ideal of a simple, quiet life. Read the rest of this entry »

Eye Exam: A Man Among Mankind

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Max Gaisser (1857-1922), "The Notary Public"

Max Gaisser (1857-1922), "The Notary Public"

By Chris Miller

Five hundred years ago, a visionary (and successful) businessman such as Eckhart Grohmann might have built a monastery, chapel or temple to enshrine his legacy—and in a way that’s exactly what he did two years ago on the campus of the Milwaukee School of Engineering. Recycling a four-story office building, he added a triumphant tower at the corner, embellished it with mosaics for the floor, murals for the encircling walls, and stained-glass windows for the ceiling of his regal, circular office that sits on top like the captain’s bridge on a ship.

The rest of building, all three floors of it, was filled with 700 artworks that celebrate the passion of his lifetime: good, old-fashioned hard work (especially in factories, like the kind he used to own as former chairman and president of Milwaukee’s Aluminum Casting & Engineering Co. ). Wow! A museum about working people—there’s nothing else like it, Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Jan Lievens/Milwaukee Art Museum

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Jan Lievens, "Portrait of Rembrandt," 1628

Jan Lievens, "Portrait of Rembrandt," 1628


Why is Rembrandt Van Rijn (1606-1669) so important in art history–while his phenomenally talented contemporary, Jan Lievens (1607-1674), is usually just a footnote? Back in their day, they both got the big commissions, made lots of money, and for a period beginning in 1626, even shared a studio. This retrospective takes you all the way back to the beginnings of Jan Lievens’ career, which, remarkably enough, began at age fourteen, and then lets you watch his work build in power and ability over the next ten years, until, remarkably enough, it seems to lose momentum. (Although he still got plenty of work.) What happened?  Sometimes, both Lievens and Rembrandt were commissioned for paintings on the same theme, but it’s almost too painful to make the comparison. Lievens could just never compose a multi-figure baroque painting, even if he had become a master of evocative portraits, still-life and drawing. And he just wasn’t suited for the dark, tragic temper of mid-seventeenth-century Europe. He should have been born into the earlier, lighthearted, more hedonistic and buoyant generation of Frans Hals. But still, those paintings that, incredibly enough, he made in his early twenties, are masterpieces, and worth the trip up Interstate 94 to see them gathered together for a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition. (Chris Miller)

Through April 26 at the Milwaukee Art Museum, 700 North Art Museum Drive,
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, (414)224-3200.

Look Up Above

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By Dan Gunn

The six-lane Polish Falcon Bowl in Milwaukee, built in 1917, is one of the oldest bowling alleys in the country, and it is also the strange site of the second gathering of art-geeks for the Milwaukee International. The art fair is co-organized by a contingent of Milwaukee gallerists, artists and curators: brothers Scott Reeder and Tyson Reeder, and Elysia Bowery-Reeder, of the General Store, John Riepenhoff of the Green Gallery and Nicholas Frank of the defunct Hermetic Gallery. The fair draws like-minded galleries from around the world, such as Joey Chang Art from Beijing and Repuesto from San Juan, to co-mingle with larger, blue-chip galleries, including Gavin Brown’s Enterprise and Marianne Boesky from New York City. There is a large Chicago contingent, too, with Western Exhibitions, the Suburban, Rowley Kennerk, Shane Campbell and Golden Age artist’s bookshop in attendance. The fair’s five organizers list this assemblage of galleries as the fair’s strength. “Our priority is to gather a geographically diverse roster of excellent international art spaces. The mix is what’s important. Because the International is a balance of ideas and commerce, we want a range of different approaches to the economies of art.”

Shoehorned into the banquet hall of the Polish Falcons, a Polish-American fraternity and advocacy organization, the glistening white-walled booths look wildly out of place. 2006’s event was serenaded by Vern and the Originals, a local Milwaukee polka band. The event stirred up the aging Originals drummer’s passions so much that “after their set, he took the microphone and made a speech to the crowd, and wrapped up with ‘There’s hope for Milwaukee!'” It’s exactly this kind of contrast that makes the whole event both exciting and vital. The homey quality of the Falcon Bowl’s interior and its working-class inhabitants bring the absurdity of the art market to the fore. One of the fair’s organizers, Tyson Reeder, tells the story of one of his friends getting a hundred-dollar bill from a collector to park his car (there are no valets at the M.I.).

But to reduce the fair to an acronym like M.I. makes it sound too similar to other fairs. This is an art fair in form but not in kind. Generally, the fair format has two main strengths, consolidating the art market geographically to increase sales and serving as a meeting ground for artists, critics, curators and collectors. The Milwaukee International minimizes selling in favor of sociability.

Tyson Reeder again, “We decided that there were still some good things about the art-fair model, and used it as a basis to make a casual, human-scale event outside the institutional context.” The Milwaukee International has branched out from just the event in the Falcon Bowl to become a kind of “platform” for non-traditional art events like this winter’s Dark Fair in New York’s Swiss Institute. It’s exactly what it sounds like—an art fair with the lights off, but candles, flashlights and blacklights galore. The group is also in the planning stages of an Ice Fair in Ontario that would feature ice shanties as booths. All of this commotion serves to make the fair more interesting for its participants, both gallerist and browser alike.

As White Columns curator Matthew Higgs wrote in Artforum after attending the International in 2006, “What distinguished the whole affair was that selling art didn’t seem to be anyone’s primary—or possibly even secondary—concern. Instead, the weekend seemed—in the most straightforward yet profound sense—to be about hanging out.” This is an art fair where artists, not hedge-fund managers, feel comfortable. Other recent attempts to re-energize the art fair have come up short. Last month’s ambitious Next fair was swallowed by the Mart’s enormous and bland architecture and looked too conventional. The lone highlight of the fair was Old Gold’s “authentic” Chicago bar. It was a refreshing respite to aisle after aisle. But the Milwaukee International is the inverse of Next’s Old Gold bar room; it’s an art fair where you wouldn’t expect one. What you should expect is some music, some bowling and some art.

Milwaukee International 2008, Polish Falcon, 801 East Clarke, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. May 16, 5pm-9pm, and May 17, Noon-9pm.